past week, you and your children may have drawn or cut out
dozens of perfectly shaped, perfectly romantic hearts. And yet, we all
know that real hearts look nothing like the ones we put on our
Valentine’s cards. How did this shape come to represent the
uninspiring shape at the heart of our circulatory system?
are several theories, all of which agree only that the tradition
goes back centuries.
Some art historians believe that the shape represents a lip imprint,
and so is meant to symbolize a kiss, an almost universal gesture of
Today’s heart shape may have grown out of early Christian
iconography, which sought a way to represent love differently than the
gods of love pictured in Greek and Roman civilization. The shape can
be seen in many early stained glass windows. The heart shape came
to stand for the soul of Jesus in the 1600s when Saint Mary Margaret
Alacoque had a vision of a heart inside a crown of thorns. The shape
became more popularly known during the Victorian era, when Britons
began using it on a variety of objects.
Another theory is that the shape does resemble the basic outlines of
the real human heart. The shape we use may not immediately look like
the organ, but imagine it as a constellation of stars representing the
rough shape of a heart and this becomes easier to imagine. The lower
two chambers of a real heart meet at a bottom point, or apex, just like
the heart shape – and the two upper chambers of the heart, the atria,
have an indentation between them, not so unlike the heart shape.
Some feel the shape goes back as far as ancient Egypt, whose ab, or
"heart soul", strongly resembles the early Christian icon and today’s
One of the most widespread theories is that the heart shape
originated in North Africa. In the 7th-century BC city-state of Cyrene, a
cash crop known as silphium made the local merchants rich. Silphium,
which was so popular it became extinct, was a species of giant fennel.
The seed pod of the silphium looked exactly like the modern heart
shape, and its image appeared on most of the region’s coins. What
made this plant so special and so valuable to the ancients? It was
used in medicines to treat warts, leprosy, fever, and indigestion; it was
an ingredient of perfumes –- and, according to scholars of the period,
as an herbal contraceptive, it provided a very effective means of birth
control. Vive le romance.